By Elizabeth R. Pollak
“Lear’s torments are central to us, almost to all of us, since the sorrows of generational strife are necessarily universal” (Bloom, Harold, The Invention of the Human [New York: Riverhead Books, 1998], 477).
Is The Tragedy of King Lear Shakespeare’s most pessimistic play? A. C. Bradley said, “This is certainly the most terrible picture that Shakespeare painted of the world. In no other of his tragedies does humanity appear more pitiably infirm or more hopelessly bad” (Shakespearean Tragedy; Lectures on Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth [London: Macmillan, 1960], 273). If you have seen King Lear before, why witness again vicious venality of two daughters, crumbling sanity of an old king, murderous betrayal by a brother, banishment of the faithful, brutal blinding of a duped duke, and finally, death, just in the moment of redemption? Perhaps because every time you see this play—production, actors and director notwithstanding—a new character appears and changes the dynamics completely.
Shakespeare based King Lear on Lear, an ancient Celtic king, from Holinshed’s Chronicles, that originated with Geoffrey of Monmouth. Its setting is Britain before the Norman conquest in 1066. In other words, long, long ago, far removed from our world. It is a tale about an arrogant, narcissistic king who invites his three daughters, Goneril, Regan and Cordelia, to vie for his favor, and for the biggest piece of the pie—his kingdom—through competitive declarations of love. It is a tale set far, far removed from twenty-first century reality; who these days has an entire kingdom to divide, and what parent asks for professions of adoration? But, how far from this “sorrow of generational strife” are we really, just because it occurs in a far away time, with royalty, masters and servants, castles, knights, a thunderous storm on a barren heath and the daunting Dover cliff?
Goneril and Regan are only too eager to compete for their father’s approbation:
Goneril: Sir, I love you more than word can wield the matter; . . .
As much as child e’er loved, or father found; . . .
Beyond all manner of so much I love you (1.1.57–63).
Regan: I am made of that same mettle as my sister, . . .
Only she comes too short . . .
I am alone felicitate in your dear Highness’ love (1.1.71–79).
But Cordelia spurns her father’s solicitation:
Cordelia: I love your Majesty
According to my bond, no more nor less (1.1.94–95).
But what was this, really? Did Lear expect to hear something to change his disposition? A map appears, the inheritance dividing lines already drawn, and we learn that Cordelia was always his favorite: “I loved her most, and thought to set my rest on her kind nursery” (1.1.125-126).
Maybe we are a little too hard on Goneril and Regan, if they have played second and third fiddle to their younger sister for a lifetime. Don’t we see children jumping for attention, waving an arm wildly, saying, “Me, me! Notice me!” Especially when pierced with the pangs of envy and jealousy. Perhaps Goneril was right: “He always loved our sister most” (1.1.292).
In a rage, Lear disinherits and banishes Cordelia from his court and apportions her third (the most generous) between the other two. And announces his intention to divide his time between their two households, along with one hundred knights, expecting to be attended to, waited upon, treated like the king he once was, and expects to still be. But wait a minute, these grown daughters aren’t so sure they want Dad hanging around. A maturing relative of mine once announced her intention to give up her residence and move from the abode of one kinsperson to the next for months at a time, and surely I wouldn’t mind participating, would I? Oh yes, I would! Are our sympathies entirely with Lear (Dad), just now, or can we feel a sliver of compassion for the daughters, haughty though they may be, who don’t want an aging parent moving in?
And what of that subplot, with a parallel theme? Gloucester’s bastard son Edmund, implicates the legitimate son Edgar in a plot to murder their father. Evil Edmund, Edmund the Iago. Does he have any legitimate complaint? Only that he is the disinherited son, illegitimate through no fault of his own—it was his father tossing between the sheets, begetting him in pleasure, not he—and he is seething with jealousy, sucking up to Dad, attempting to discredit the legitimate son.
A. C. Bradley says that “it would be going too far to suggest that [Shakespeare] was employing conscious symbolism or allegory in King Lear . . .” because “we are accustomed to think it quite foreign to Shakespeare’s genius, which was in the highest degree concrete” (273). However, this story is told with enough temporal distance (even for Shakespeare’s audiences), and phantasmagorical happenstance—wild storms, wanderings on the heath, feigned insanity—to let a patron put the disturbing drama “over there, not me” and watch comfortably. Yet the intergenerational conflicts are, as Bloom has stated, universal and the characters each believably laced with enough multiplicity as to insinuate themselves into at least our subconscious, so that we identify, if only fleetingly, with fragments of almost all of them. The characters may be mounted as near opposites—Goneril and Regan’s malevolence to Cordelia’s rectitude, Edmund’s bastardy to Edgar’s filial devotion—but they all represent elements of the human psyche whose aspects are exaggerated for effect, but are human. Who among us has not felt that stab of jealousy, fierce resentment, irrational rage?
And who is that fresh character when you see the play anew? She or he is you, the one who isn’t the you who saw King Lear five or ten or fifteen years ago. We change, the constellations of our relationships change, our sympathies change with the conflicts and allegiances of our current situation. My sister is my ally in coercing my mother to our will. My sister is my adversary in the reading of our mother’s will. When I saw King Lear at the Utah Shakespeare Festival in 1999, I was the daughter of an irascible, uncooperative mother, not to mention an overbearing, demanding father-in-law who, when asked, “What do you want for Christmas?” sneered, “If you loved me, you would know.” Goneril and Regan didn’t seem all that outrageous to me. In 2007 when I saw it again, my mother was frail, had outlived her fierce disposition, the father-in-law had died—but my own children had struck out on their own—and I had opinions! I sympathized with the demanding Lear. Now, as I approach the 2015 production, I am retired and have received equivocal responses from both of my children to the question, “Would you like us to live near you?” Lear in the storm, on the heath groping, seems more like it.
Lear survives the storm, lives long enough for reconciliation and perishes fulfilling the tragedy. Shakespeare pierces our hearts with enduring blissful agony. Is it really pessimistic?
Shakespeare has been called the playwright for all time, his plays revered and inhabited for four hundred years, not because of incomprehensible depth and complexity but because they speak to ourselves: “Shakespeare enables us to see realities that may already have been there but that we would not find it possible to see without him” (Bloom, 477). Where are you in King Lear? See it, then see it again, and again. Shakespeare, King Lear, is for all time, all of your many times—for the changing you over time.